Mexico's Drug War: Some Advice For The Next President

Editorial: Whoever is "lucky" enough to win Mexico's upcoming presidential election will inherit a gruesome drug war that has already killed some 55,000. Just this week, 49 headless corpses turned up near the northern city of Mo

Police take a suspected drug trafficker off a helicopter in Hermosillo in the state of Sonora, in 2009 (Knight Foundation)
Police take a suspected drug trafficker off a helicopter in Hermosillo in the state of Sonora, in 2009 (Knight Foundation)

SANTIAGOBy all indications, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the political machine that dominated Mexican politics for 70 uninterrupted years before losing power in 2000, is set to regain the presidency in the country's upcoming July 1 election.

The party's front-running candidate is Enrique Peña Nieto, a 45-year-old lawyer with boyish good looks and promises of reform. Many of the Mexicans who support him, however, don't in fact want reform. They got enough of that with Felipe Calderón, the current president, who reformed the country's approach to the drug trade by launching an armed conflict in 2006 against drug trafficking cartels. Since then some 55,000 people have died - roughly the same number the United States lost in the Vietnam War.

Peña Nieto's sizeable lead in the polls (17 percentage points at last count) has less to do with the strength of his candidacy than it does with how frustrated voters are over the current government's failures, particularly when it comes to the drug war and the economy. Both of those problems, in turn, have much to do with Mexico's geography: namely that it shares a 2,000-mile border with the United States.

Of all the countries in Latin America, Mexico – which is a member along with Canada and the United States of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – was the most affected by the U.S. recession of 2008-2009. Even though its economy is growing again, Mexico is still feeling the effects of the 6.3% economic contraction it suffered in 2009.

Its giant northern neighbor is also the world's largest consumer of illegal drugs. The United States, according to various studies, buys between $14 billion and $49 billion worth of illicit drugs annually. The lion's share of those products pass through Mexico, whose trafficking cartels control 90% of the drugs that enter the United States, one U.S. Congressional study estimated.

Drug trafficking existed during the years that the PRI was in power as well. But never during the party's so-called "perfect dictatorship," as some observers describe the PRI's decades-long grip on power, was there so much violence. Privately, some Mexicans who support Peña Nieto talk with nostalgia about the bygone days of PRI dominance, when the government kept things calm in Mexico by maintaining a tacit agreement with the cartels.

Even if such a pact did exist, there'd be no way to replicate it now. Until the late 1990s, the cocaine that entered the United States was controlled by two Colombian cartels: one from Medellin, the other from Cali. Mexican cartels did have some market share, but nothing compared to what they were able to take control of once the Colombian government – with help from U.S. money and troops – dismantled their Cali and Medellin competitors. Also, when the Colombians ran the show, there were really just two mafia groups doing business. The Mexican cartels, in contrast, are numerous.

Even before Calderón dispatched government troops to engage them, the Mexican cartels were already fighting amongst themselves. They continue to do so now. When soldiers manage to take down one faction, violence tends to surge as the remaining groups battle for control of the defunct cartel's former territory.

America's failed "lock-em-up" strategy

What has the United States done in the meantime to help manage things on the consumption end? Over the past 30 years, U.S. authorities have increased by a factor of 10 prison sentences for people convicted of drug-related crimes. Tough sentencing laws haven't stopped people from consuming drugs. But they have led to an increase in street-value drug prices. The other result is that the United States now has the world's highest incarceration rate. According to a study by King's College in London, nearly 1 in every 100 Americans is behind bars.

U.S. authorities spend $7 billion per year arresting and legally processing more than half a million people for drug-related offenses. But the drug market barely seems to be affected. An annual drug survey carried out among American students keeps coming up with the same results: last year – just as they did in 1975 – roughly 75% of respondents said it is "very easy" to obtain marijuana.

Peña Nieto faces a huge challenge. He has aired the idea of turning the approximately 50,000 soldiers involved in the fight against organized crime into a national guard. He says too that he will seek greater cooperation from the United States. But as long as there continues to be a market for illegal drugs, there will be organizations keen to satisfy that market by producing and distributing those drugs.

Some people are calling for legalization and decriminalization as a way to mitigate the problem. A few U.S. states have legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes. And some Latin American countries, including Mexico, have decriminalized possession of small amounts of drugs – even cocaine, heroine and methamphetamines. The problem of narco-violence, however, remains.

Legalizing marijuana for recreational use would help. For several Mexican cartels, trafficking and distribution of the plant is their primary source of revenue. But even if the United States were to legalize marijuana consumption – which, at least in the short term, seems highly unlikely – there would still be high demand for other illegal drugs.

Several former Latin American presidents have joined forces in lobbying for polices that combine legalization and decriminalization with prevention and treatment programs. Instead of spending mountains of money on police and military repression, and on locking people up, governments should direct that money instead to the public health sector.

There is anecdotal evidence from various countries suggesting such an approach can be effective. The next Mexican president would do well to give this focus serious consideration, starting at home and then, once he or she has some positive results to demonstrate, share the evidence with authorities up north. Maybe President Obama – or Mitt Romney – will pay attention.

Read the original article in Spanish

Photo - Knight Foundation

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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